Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, left, leads his first cabinet meeting, Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2019, in Nashville, Tenn. At right is Blake Harris, his chief of staff. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

NASHVILLE -- Tennessee Governor Bill Lee issued his first executive order Wednesday, requiring all 22 state executive departments to assess their current impact on distressed rural areas along with recommendations on how they will accelerate plans to serve rural Tennesseans better.

The executive order represents the first action by Lee, who campaigned for governor last year pledging to step up state efforts to focus on the state's 15 economically distressed rural counties, a list that includes Grundy, Van Buren and Bledsoe counties.

The 15 Tennessee counties falls within the nation's top 10 percent economically distressed counties based on an annual index of unemployment, income and poverty levels. The index is issued by the federal Appalachian Regional Commission.

"My administration will place a high emphasis on the development and success of our rural areas," said Lee, who was sworn into office on Saturday. "Our first executive order sends a clear message that rural areas will be prioritized across all departments as we work to improve coordination in our efforts."

Noting that health outcome problems, such as shortages in primary care, remain a "challenge for rural communities," the executive order says educational attainment and labor workforce also is "continuing to lag" in the 15 counties as well when measured against the state's 95 counties.

"[T]his administration recognizes that achieving this policy will require a continued focus on the unique challenges and responses for rural Tennesseans," the executive order says.

The order requires each department to submit a "statement of rural impact," explaining the agency's mission and how it may "uniquely impact rural Tennesseans." Departments will also be required to state the number of "taxpayers or customers" served by the agency in rural areas.

Moreover, departments are to provide comprehensive descriptions of initiatives adopted or funded over the past four years to specifically address challenges unique to rural communities.

Lee wants departments to report back to him with the rural impact statements by May 31 with recommendations for service improvements due by June 30.

"Our state has reached historic levels of prosperity and I want to ensure that the 15 distressed counties in our state benefit from a concentrated mission," Lee stated. "Each department has communicated full support as we move forward with putting this plan into motion."

The other distressed counties in Tennessee are Lake, Lauderdale, Hardeman, McNairy, Perry, Jackson, Clay, Fentress, Morgan, Scott, Hancock and Cocke. 

Each year, the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) prepares an index of county economic status for every county in the U.S.

Contact Andy Sher at or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.